TRUTH AND DARE
Mykki Blanco, The Rapper Challenges Rap’s HIV Stigma
The queer rapper has made his HIV positive status public. Will the world of rap embrace or turn on him?
“Oh this fag can rap? Yeah, they saying that. They listening.”
Three years ago, this line from Mykki Blanco’s hit single “Wavvy” became something of a rallying cry for an emerging LGBT rap and hip-hop scene populated by figures like Le1f, Angel Haze, Zebra Katz, and Big Freedia.
For Blanco, born Michael Quattlebaum Jr., the lyric was an assertion of artistic relevance beyond the confines of identity—a claim to a place not just in queer rap, but in rap unmodified.
But Blanco’s Facebook post last weekend might prove to be even more influential: “Ive been HIV Positive since 2011, my entire career. fuck stigma and hiding in the dark, this is my real life.” For Blanco to come out as an HIV-positive musician is brave but for him to come out as an HIV-positive rapper is almost revolutionary.
This announcement comes just over twenty years after rap star Eazy-E revealed that he had AIDS, becoming one of the first musicians to do so.
In a statement issued shortly before his death, Eazy-E said that he “would like to turn my own problem into something good that will reach out to all my homeboys and their kin because I want to save [them] before it’s too late.”
Two decades later, young black gay and bisexual men are most affected by HIV in the United States, with nearly the same number of new infections as the much larger population of white gay and bisexual men.
The public health factors behind this disparity run deep but rap and hip-hop could play an important role in addressing the cultural problems that shape them.
Charles Stephens, founder of The Counter Narrative Project, a black gay advocacy network, tells The Daily Beast that the unapologetic tone of Blanco’s Facebook post falls in line with a long tradition of black LGBT artists confronting the stigma around HIV.
“Much of the history of HIV activism is also the history of artists,” says Stephens. “They were able to create the messages, imagine the tactics, and in many ways provide the poetry for the movement.”
In particular, Stephens says, Blanco’s attitude reminds him of a 1991 essay by black gay activist Craig G. Harris, “I’m Going Out Like a Fucking Meteor,” which ends with the powerful declaration, “I want to live the rest of my life with an energy that ignites and irritates, burns and bubbles, soothes and inspires until it bursts from this atmosphere, dissipating into the cosmos.”
That same crackling energy seems to be the through line between Blanco’s art and activism.
When one Facebook commenter took a pitying tone in reaction to the announcement, Blanco replied, “i aint ill.”
To another commenter, he said, “I just cant be an image living in fear having people calling me brave and it being a lie.” It’s clear that a weight has been lifted from the rapper’s shoulders, judging from the self-deprecating humor he has displayed since his declaration.
But the fact that it took an artist as fearless as Blanco three years to come out as HIV-positive speaks to the stigma that still surrounds HIV in rap and hip-hop.
Blanco already bucks most standard conventions of gender and sexuality, performing in various costumes that draw equally from drag and Riott Grrrl aesthetics.
In an interview, Blanco has said that he identifies not as transgender but as a “transvestite,” but he has become so associated with his “dressed up” persona that widespread confusion around his pronoun preferences persists in the media with most outlets using “he” but others “she.”
Neither pronoun feels adequate to capture Blanco, who has been described elsewhere as being “multi-gendered.” When the media pigeonholed him as a mere “gay rapper,” he pushed back, as The Advocate reports, by entitling his next album Gay Dog Food.
“Blanco’s critique of assimilation, resistance to conformity, and transgressive artistic expression inspire the outsider perspective that seems to animate Blanco’s work,” explains Stephens.
Not too long ago, it might have been impossible for Blanco to break through as a subversive, definition-defying “transvestite” rapper, let alone an HIV-positive one.
Only two years before Eazy-E passed away, rapper Buju Banton released “Boom Bye Bye,” a song about shooting gay men in the head.
From Will Smith telling people with AIDS to “be quiet” to Eminem’s liberal use of the word “faggot” to 50 Cent telling Playboy that he doesn’t “like gay people around [him],” rap and hip-hop have come to be associated with virulent expressions of homophobia--hardly the climate where one would expect to see the boom of emerging LGBT artists that has taken place in the last five years.
On his Facebook, Blanco commented that “the music industry ain’t gonna like i admitted this” and it’s clear why: Not only does he face an uphill battle as a path-making queer rapper, HIV carries an especially negative connotation in an already homophobic creative atmosphere.
In the rap world where rumors of diagnosis seem to be constantly swirling, HIV can become a blunt instrument for tearing down reputations.
Despite widespread support this week for Blanco from his fans and the broader LGBT community, it is certainly possible that a confirmed diagnosis will have a negative impact on his career.
“There is no courage without cost,” says Stephens. “If the music industry won’t stand behind Mykki, there are many of us that will.”
But with that cost comes the possibility of tremendous benefit.
“I think Blanco’s courage will make a huge differences in the lives of black queer and trans youth impacted by HIV,” Stephens maintains. “Awareness precedes action.”
In particular, Stephens points to Blanco’s “fuck stigma” attitude as a vital thread of black LGBT activism around HIV/AIDS. As the Center for Disease Control (CDC) notes, poverty, lack of access to healthcare, and an already high prevalence of HIV are all contributing factors to new HIV infections among African Americans.
But the acute stigma surrounding the virus in black communities exacerbates all of these structural factors.
“Fear of disclosing risk behavior or sexual orientation may prevent African Americans from seeking testing, prevention and treatment services, and support from friends and family,” the CDC reports.
“Hiding, being afraid of stigma is exhausting,” Blanco wrote on Facebook.
For a rising generation of black gay and bisexual men, that fear isn’t just tiring, it can be life-threatening. In his announcement, Blanco said, “I’ve toured the world 3 times,” but those without his resources may not be able to access adequate healthcare to receive antiretroviral drugs or to manage HIV-related or “opportunistic” infections.
By becoming one of the first major musicians and one of the only rappers to come out as HIV-positive on his own terms, Blanco proves that an HIV diagnosis is not a death sentence but he may also alleviate the silence surrounding prevention for those who are still at risk.
Although the effects of art like Blanco’s may seem intangible compared to the sizable public health challenge facing black communities, they are and always have been, as Stephens points out, absolutely essential.
At the height of the AIDS crisis, ACT UP’s activists designed an iconic image that went on to have an immeasurable impact: a pink triangle on a black background above the motto “SILENCE = DEATH.”
Silence remains deadly, but black artists like Mykki Blanco are breaking it—and the results can still be radical.